Even individuals who don't normally wear hats should include a hat with their birding wardrobe, but not just any hat will do. Birders aren't always known for stylish fashion, but a good birding hat is always in style out in the field.
Why Birders Wear Hats
Birding hats aren't meant to be the ideal in outdoor fashion, but rather than looking fabulous – and some field hats certainly do – a birder's hat serves many purposes, including:
- Sun Protection: A hat's broad brim is an ideal sun shade while birding, helping protect sensitive skin on the face, throat and neck from too much sun exposure and burning. This is essential for long birding trips, when a birder may spend several hours a day in the field. In forested habitats this protection is not as critical, but many prime birding habitats such as marshes, lakes, beaches and grasslands do not have abundant shade, and a hat is essential.
- Reducing Glare: Bright glare on a sunny day can dramatically reduce visibility while birding, washing out colors, obscuring field marks and making proper identifications more difficult. A good hat can minimize that glare and make it easier to see birds without eyestrain or developing glare-related headaches.
- Camouflage: Neutrally-colored hats help camouflage a birder from wary birds, but more importantly, a hat breaks up the outline of a birder's head, disguising the shape that can put a bird on alert. Different patterns on hats can provide even more camouflage protection.
- Warmth: On cold days, heat loss through the head can make birding very uncomfortable, and a hat can help preserve warmth so birders can stay in the field longer. Even a ventilated hat will help protect the head and keep birders more comfortable for longer stints of birding.
- Promotion: Any hat that features the name of a preserve, festival or favorite bird can serve as in-field advertising to raise awareness of local birds, birding clubs or regional events. This can encourage new birders to join in and demonstrates the importance of birding to local economies. Many nature preserves, festivals and birding hotspots sell hats as a form of wearable advertising as well as practical souvenirs.
The Best Birding Hats
There are many hat manufacturers who offer field-friendly designs that can work for birding, and many birders opt for simple, basic hats rather than specialized styles. The very best birding hats, however, all share common characteristics that can help birding.
- Brim: A moderately wide, floppy brim is best on a birding hat and will provide sun protection but still be flexible so as not to interfere with binoculars or dislodge when optics hit the brim. The brim should extend all around the hat's circumference for the most protection, and a longer brim or extra flap at the rear can easily protect the back of the neck. Some brims have snaps or buttons so the sides can pin up if desired.
- Ventilation: Mesh buttons, panels or patches at the sides and crown of the hat can keep air circulating across the head for temperature regulation and greater comfort, particularly in hot climates. A ventilated hat will reduce sweating but will still provide shade for the wearer.
- Neutral Colors: While birds see color differently than humans, hats in earth tone colors such as brown, green, blue and gray are the best choices and will blend in better to help camouflage birders. The exception is when birders visit areas where hunters may be active during the appropriate season, and in that case a bright orange hat may be necessary for safety.
- Secure Fit: A birding hat should fit snuggly around the wearer's head while leaving some space at the crown for cooling ventilation. The hat should not easily move when the wearer tilts their head to see up or down, and a chin strap can be a useful feature to keep the hat secure even when birding on windy days.
- Uncovered Ears: While ear flaps may be comfortable for winter birding, they can also obscure faint calls and songs that can help locate and identify birds. The best birding hats will not have any ear flaps, or at least the flaps can be tied or buttoned out of the way if desired during birding trips.
- Ultraviolet Protection: UV protection is not essential for a birding hat, but it does provide an extra layer of protection against excessive sun exposure for long birding walks. These hats can be more expensive, but are a good investment for birders who may have sensitive skin or skin conditions that need special care.
Many birders own more than one hat and will choose the best hat for each birding trip depending on the weather, light levels and other factors. A summer hat may have more ventilation than a winter hat, for example, and different brim widths can be useful for different times of day when the sun is higher or lower in the sky. No matter what hat a birder chooses, however, the most important factor is to be sure it is always worn – it doesn't do any good if it isn't on the head!
Buying a Birding Hat
Hats for birding can be found at any outdoor supply store, such as hunting, camping or fishing stores, as well as wild bird stores. The cost can vary from $10 to more than $100 depending on the hat's manufacturer and features, but even inexpensive hats can be ideal depending on a birder's preferences. Before purchasing a hat, be sure to try it on for a comfortable fit, and see how it feels when binoculars are being used.
Whether or not you enjoy hats as a fashion statement, the right hat can help you enjoy birding more by providing greater comfort in the field and serving practical purposes to make your birding even better. Let's all say hats off to birds!